Just a few weeks earlier, during the Shabbat evening service on April 17th, Fred's wife Maren shared her remarkable story of survival in conjunction with our observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Maren allowed us to publish her talk here on our congregational blog, which appeared in a post entitled Maren Friedman's Yom HaShoah Story.
How fortunate we are, then, that her husband has also provided us with his own address, which in its own right is absolutely noteworthy. And so, without further ado, here is Fred Friedman's Story:
First of all, I want to thank my friends on the Board and the Rabbi for this unexpected honor. I am delighted and proud. When I first heard of the plan for this evening I thought, “why me?” And that night as I was going to sleep I started to wonder, “How, as I approach my 84th year, did I get here?
Well, the short answer would be “by boat”. But that’s not quite the story. By “get here” I mean how did I come to be a practicing Reform Jew, the President of my previous Congregation and a Board member of Adas Emuno. There was no Jewish experience in my first seven years, no Seders, no synagogue, no High Holy Days, nothing! My family going back at least 3 generations were totally assimilated German Jews.
I was born Fritz Bernard Friedmann in Wurzburg Germany in 1931. My father was a lawyer. My mother was a trained kindergarten teacher. When Hitler came to power one of his first acts was to forbid Jews to practice law. That took away my fathers profession, probably his self respect and made earning a living ultimately impossible as more such restrictions came about. It led to my father's suicide in January 1938. My mother and I moved in with my grandmother until July 1938, when mother and I left for England to join her brother and his family who had emigrated to the UK in the mid 1930s. Mom stayed in England for a week or so and left for America in order to find work and get established. I stayed behind and finally sailed alone to New York in October 1938. I was seven years old. I was a very happy kid. I was finally going to join my mother again!
Early on the morning of October 29th, I was woken up and taken on deck to see the Statue of Liberty and New York. The view was astounding. But it took second place to the thought of being together with my mother after our many months of separation.
I remember the passport and customs lines and formalities. Finally by noon I was ready, and waited for my mother to come. I waited and waited and waited some more, miserable and sobbing. By 5 PM I was the only passenger left, and the staff was about to turn me over to the police for safekeeping when my mother finally arrived. She had gotten the time wrong. That began some 4 1/2 years of disappointment and separation. Mother’s training enabled her to get a job as a sleep in baby nurse with a wealthy Park Avenue family There was no place for me. I was put in a foster home with the Oppenheimers, refugees like us who lived in Valley Stream, Long Island. I would be able to see my mother only on Sundays, her one day off. That was very far from the hopes and expectations of life with mother that I had when I boarded the ship “Deutschland” in Soutampton ten days earlier.
The Oppenheimers were kind, and in retrospect as good as foster parents could be. But a foster home was not what I wanted. I wanted a home with mother, like other kids. A four or five hour visit once a week was tough to deal with. I spent a lot of nights crying myself to sleep.
Money was scarce, of course. A birthday meant new socks or underwear. Everything else was hand me down. I had to earn my own spending money. I sold the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal door to door, and in Valley Stream State Park. The money I earned was small but gave me some spending money like my friends who got allowances. And you got points for selling magazines. They could be redeemed for toys. That’s how I got my crystal radio set that allowed me to listen to radio programs under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I learned to speak English properly listening to that little crystal set.
Tommy Hayes, the school principal's son, and I became friends and I was often invited to the Hayes's home after school. That was an all-American family in my eyes—right out of Norman Rockwell. It was my first experience of what an American home and family could be like. I liked it a lot and vowed that if I could, my adult life would be like the Hayes's life, and my kids would not have to repeat the life I was living.
I also got my first Jewish experience with the Oppenheimers. They were Conservative Jews who kept a kosher home, went to synagogue, and sent me to Sunday school. They celebrated the Jewish holidays, a new experience for me. In Germany the only way I found out that I was Jewish was the Juden Verboten (Jews Forbidden) signs at hotels and restaurants and shops. I wasn’t allowed in a German school when the time came. I had to go to a Jewish school. The irony was that I was a towheaded blond kid with blue-green eyes who looked German. So much so that at parades, policemen and soldiers would hoist me on their shoulders so that I could see over the crowd. It gave my mother much mirth to see her Jewish son taken for a real German boy by the Nazis.
When I was nearly twelve my mother started work as a kindergarten teacher in a small New York nursery school. And when the owner wanted to retire my mother was able to buy the school with the money she had been able to save over 5 years of hard work. I was able to leave the foster home and live with my mother in the nursery school apartment. She slept in the living room. I had a small bathroom sized room just big enough for a small bed, a desk and a chair.
And so, my life as a more normal American kid began. And so did my Jewish life. Although my mother was not a practicing Jew nor a believer, she wanted me to have Jewish background, and I was Bar Mitzvah at a Reform congregation. That wasn’t important to me at age 13. But when I became an adult, met my wonderful wife Maren, and had a family, Jewishness became IMPORTANT (in capital letters)! We wanted our kids to be Jewish. And they are. And so are our six grandchildren who range from Shomer Shabbos to very Reform.
In spite of my beginnings, Judaism triumphed, became a meaningful part of my life, and brings me great joy. Who would have thought it, 84 years ago? From Fritz to Fred. It’s been a hell of an interesting journey! I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world!